25 Feb 2016

Feeling dense about housing density?

12:39 pm on 25 February 2016

Have you got lost in the heated debate over Auckland housing density? RNZ News Auckland issues correspondent Todd Niall provides a dummy's guide.

Auckland skyline

Auckland's population is forecast to grow by as much as 1 million by 2041. Photo: 123RF

What is all this talk of increased housing density?

Auckland's population is forecast to grow by between 750,000 and 1 million by 2041. The Council's "Auckland Plan" calls for 60-70 percent of those people to be housed within the urban boundary. That will only be possible with an increasing proportion of higher-density housing such as townhouses, terraced houses or apartments.

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What's the Unitary Plan?

The Unitary Plan, due to be finalised in September, will be the rule book for the development of Auckland's landscape. It will lay out where parks and shops will be, where housing will be low-density single homes on sections, and where more intensive development will occur (all the way up to high-rise apartments in metropolitan centres).

The proposed Unitary Plan was created by the Council in 2013 after public consultation. Since then it is effectively the property of a government-appointed Independent Hearings Panel. In simple terms, this is like a court which will hear evidence from thousands of submitters, and decide what it thinks will be the best plan for the city.

It will pass a completed plan back to the Council in July, which must decide whether to accept or reject it, in full or in part. There are limited grounds for rejection, and these may trigger appeals to the Environment Court.

What was yesterday's kerfuffle about?

A step in that process occurred late last year, when the Council was required to prepare "evidence" to go to the Panel, showing its response to other submissions, some of which called for more or less density.

In the council's evidence it argued there was a case for higher density in some areas - 14 percent of residential Auckland - than was provided for in the 2013 version of the plan.

The council insists that step in the process did not allow input from affected property owners who were not already submitters, and the Independent Panel also ruled it would not allow new submitters to enter the process.

Community groups, the Auckland 2040 campaign, and some councillors believed "natural justice" was being denied property owners, and successfully moved to have the council withdraw zonings which were higher than previously in the mix.

Mayor Len Brown at the Auckland Council debate over its proposals for zoning and density housing in the city.

Mayor Len Brown at the Auckland Council debate over its proposals for zoning and density housing in the city. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Who is better off because of yesterday's vote?

Property owners who do not want the nature of their neighbourhoods to change. Also, arguably, councillors who may have feared a voter backlash in October's local body elections.

Who is worse off?

Proponents of the "compact city" concept argue that less density has consequences. They say housing will be less affordable because each dwelling will need a larger share of increasingly expensive land. They argue that fewer people will enjoy a truly urban lifestyle, be able to live on public transport routes and close to town centres. In short more people will struggle to afford to rent or buy in Auckland and may have to live further out.

Aucklanders fill the Town Hall to air their views on zoning and high density proposals by the Council.

Aucklanders fill the Town Hall to air their views on zoning and high density proposals by the Council. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Is this a battle of the generations?

The young people's organisation Generation Zero, and members of the Council's Youth Advisory Panel see it as a generational issue. The interests of today's property owners might not be in the best interests of the next generation of aspiring home buyers or renters. The Productivity Commission has written of a "democratic deficit" in which existing property owners exert a disproportionate influence, in often conservative decision-making.

What happens now?

The Unitary Plan process rolls on. The Auckland Council believes it cannot withdraw only part of its' evidence to the hearings panel, and that it may not be able to have any further role in the next two months of discussion on residential zoning. Those hearings and discussions will occur, and the Panel will deliver the Plan in July. It just means from here on in, the council will have no further influence.